Earth’s latest emissary in space is about to touch down, destination Mars. Curiosity has traveled 557 million kilometers in 8 months (launched November 2011) only to be perched delicately in space ready for 7 minutes of terror, the descent to the surface of Mars from space.
With the tension building to a crescendo, NASA are listening intently for the signs of a successful landing, the call back that will cause one enormous sign of relief. Possibly one of the most watched NASA events in many years, Curiosity at the very least has achieved just that.
To celebrate the occasion NASA has released the Grand Entrance videos, with Wil Wheaton and William Shatner presenting the radical landing procedure along with a little background on Curiosity’s mission. Both video’s are presented for you viewing pleasure, choose your NASA flavor, Wheaton or Shatner.
Weighing in at 900kg and 3 meters long Curiosity is literally bigger than a small car, with five times the scientific equipment when compared to previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.
Nuclear powered the rover should have enough juice to keep running for at least 14 years. Providing 125watts of power day and night, in all weather conditions, this alone should give Curiosity a much better chances of surviving on Mars.
More than 500,000 lines of code will help Curiosity cope with almost any situation, especially the incredibly complex landing procedure. Mission software updates can also be sent to Curiosity at any point during the mission.
Traditionally Mars rovers have used the air-bag approach to landing the craft on Mars, wrapping the rovers in enough air-bags to insulate the craft against the impact. An approach that always seemed a little retro. The size and weight of Curiosity however meant this approach wasn’t feasible, a new landing procedure was required.
NASA surprised everyone by going with one of the more complex approaches, if it works it will also be one of the most spectacular automated space maneuvers of all time. Flown completely on auto pilot.
During initial approach Curiosity is protected by a heat shield that burns at 2,090 °C while the friction reduces the crafts speed from 17,000kmh to 1,600kph. Once the speed has reduced to 1,600kph a parachute specially designed to deploy at supersonic speeds is set loose from it’s bonds, opening quickly it will further reduce the crafts speed. The heat shield is also separated during the jolt of the parachute deployment.
The parachute is able to be guided and radar systems search for the correct landing zone and direct the craft in. At 1.6km above the surface, having slowed down to only a few hundred kilometers an hour Curiosity and the landing module separate from the parachute, the landing rockets fire up and Curiosity is lowered gently to the surface.
The Mission Mars Science Laboratory
Curiosity is a part of the larger Mars Science Laboratory program. Curiosity is simply the lead singer of the band and the name that everyone will associate with a trip to Mars.
Landing in Gale crater Curiosity will be ready to explore. Once safely on the surface Curiosity will spend 2 years studying the Martian environment. With literally an entire science laboratory built into Curiosity it will examine soil and rock samples, try to find reliable sources of water and study the spectrum of surface radiation that makes it to the Martian surface. Will we need 1,000,000 block sunscreen for a trip to the beach on Mars? Lasers on-board will be used to vaporize rock and sensors will then analyze the vapor.
Answers are being sought to a number of fundamental questions, was there ever life on Mars and what would it take to get Human life on to Mars, and establish a Martial base. With so much to learn about Mars there are many other questions that will be answered along the way, in the next few years potentially.
Curiosity, not only a desirable personal trait but also our latest set of scientific eyes sent out to explore our solar system. Hopefully the landing will go well, and this time tomorrow Curiosity will have her eyes open and wheels spinning in Martian dust, sending images of the distant world home to us.
Real Time Stream: NASA Curiosity News
Real Time Stream: NASA Curiosity Landing Live
Related Article: Curiosity Gallery
Reference: NASA Mars Science Laboratory